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Digital textbooks and pedagogy: An interview with June Parsons & Dan Oja

Dan Oja and June ParsonsComputer ConceptsDigital book pioneers June Parsons and Dan Oja co-developed the first commercially successful multimedia, interactive digital textbook; one that set the bar for platforms now being developed by educational publishers.

The coauthors began writing and creating educational software for Course Technology in 1992 and between them have authored more than 150 college computer textbooks. They currently have several digital textbooks in print, including the best-selling New Perspectives on Computer Concepts.

Parsons has a doctorate in instructional technology and has taught at the university level for more than 20 years. Oja is an experienced programmer. He developed BookOnPublish, a software tool for assembling and publishing multimedia digital books.

Here Parsons and Oja talk to TAA about digital textbooks and pedagogy:

TAA: As digital book pioneers, how have you incorporated multimedia and interactive elements into to your texts?

June Parsons & Dan Oja: “Our first Microsoft Excel book was sold with a student copy of Excel bound into the book, giving students an option to work with the software on their own computers, though in those days computer ownership was the exception, rather than the rule.

In 1995, Dan created a set of interactive lab simulations that were packaged on a CD along with the textbook. Students could use this CD in the school’s computer lab to learn about binary numbers, discover the inner workings of a CPU, put together a basic computer network, and explore other concepts presented in the printed textbook.

A couple of years later, Dan developed a way to put the entire textbook on a CD so that students could access lab simulations and practice tests from within the text. That was a breakthrough. Reading the text on screen and being able to access labs and quizzes in context created a clear learning path for students. In subsequent editions, we added videos to show how various equipment worked and animated diagrams to help students grasp concepts. We also created simulated software tutorials so students could get an idea of how to use operating systems and software that they might not have ‘live’ access to.”

TAA: What is your philosophy on the pedagogy of digital book authoring?

JP & DO: “We like the book paradigm and we try to preserve all its pedagogically useful aspects. Each page focuses on a topic. Text, photos, and callouts can be placed to help students flow through a logical progression of concepts. The book paradigm is familiar to students and instructors. Also, it translates with surprising cost-effectiveness into enhanced, digital versions.

Back in the days when textbooks were only text, they were only one dimensional. Photos and four-color printing added a second dimension. Today, digital technology allows us to elaborate on the text, essentially making it three dimensional by including video, sounds, animations, links to Web-based material, and interactive assessment.

Educational research seems clear that the more students interact with learning material, the more they absorb and retain. Our goal is to encourage students to be active learners by getting them involved in watching short videos segments, interacting with diagrams, and working with software tutorials. We think it is important for students to get lots of feedback about how well they understand the material, so we try to provide them with checkpoint questions throughout the text and plenty of practice test questions at the end of each chapter.”

TAA: Do you have any recommendations for the best digital book authoring practices?

DJ & DO: “Digital publishing opens a whole new world of possibilities for authors. To get started, we would suggest that authors do a little research by using a variety of digital materials and evaluating them from the learner’s perspective. What works? What doesn’t work? What’s just a gimmick?

Next, you might consider how you can best use digital technology in your subject area. In a Chemistry text, for example, visualization might be one of the most useful learning tools, so you can use animations to showstudents how atoms form molecules and compounds. In a history textbook, youmight make use of interactive timelines. Music theory texts can definitely benefit from in-context audio.

If your publisher has a digital platform, make sure you become familiar with all of its features and possibilities, and then try to determine how to best use those features to help learners. Don’t assume that you can simply hand your manuscript to a developer and get a good quality digital product. We think it is essential for authors to get involved with planning and testing, even if they don’t have the tools or expertise to carry out the actual digital development.

The key to creating a successful multimedia textbook is focusing on the places where students might have difficulty with concepts or where their interest might fade. Adding a short video, animation, or feedback question at that point can keep students on track and engaged.”

TAA: Can you share a few key tips and/or lessons learned regarding textbook authoring or publishing?

JP: “Early in my writing career I learned to disown the first draft as soon as it was finished. When you do that, it is easier to deal with all the comments and corrections from your DE andreviewers. You don’t take them personally; in fact you can become your best critic when you don’t have ego invested in your work.”

DO: “I always try to do the hard parts first. If I can get past those, then I’m fairly certain the project will turn out as I envision it. HPF is especially important for programming projects that have all sorts of technical gotchas, but it also applies to writing and media development.”

TAA: What do you value most about your TAA membership?

JP & DO: “TAA gives us a chance to keep in touch with other textbook authors. Talking to kindred spirits at the annual conference tends to put our work in perspective and gets us motivated for upcoming projects.”